Since Nancy Drew solved The Secret of the Old Clock and The Mystery of the 99 Steps, maybe we can turn to her to solve the case of the missing literary journal.
My friend Leslie writes to Ask the Moon this question:
What I'm wondering about is the sometimes ephemerality of online publication. I have at least two stories that have disappeared—one they just aren't archiving that far back, another defunct. I love the part of online that means I get readers, of course, but once the story disappears, it really disappears. No trace—not even cache. I would be interested in your editorial take on that.
Book people sometimes fetishize paper editions—the feel of them, the smell of the ink, the way their spines line up on shelves. But one thing that is irrefutably true about books is that they are physical artifacts that commemorate a publication. We can hold them in our hands, mail them to our moms, pass them around a room.
While I like how my print publications look on the shelf, I really prefer online publications these days. I’m never going to run into my college friends and pull a Laurel Review from my purse, mainly because it’s a small purse, I have far-flung friends, and I like to keep my prized contributor’s copy of The Laurel Review in good condition. But I do enjoy posting a link on social media, and my friends still may not read the thing, but they’re generous with a “like” or a “favorite.”
Leslie brings up a huge drawback to online publishing, though, and that is the uncertainty of the archives. My very first publication was in a small literary magazine out of Illinois called Farmer’s Market. Farmer’s Market no longer exists as a magazine, but my copy exists. It’s on my shelf, and it’s a physical reminder of when I started to fully identify as a writer. I treasure it.
Mind you, I don’t insist on paper. But I don’t want my online publications to disappear, as Leslie reports happening with hers. When we publish online, we like to believe that there will always be a marker online, one that we can return to at any point or refer readers to as the need arises.
In the past here, I’ve mentioned the problem caused by dilettante editors who dabble in literary journals with great enthusiasm and success—until they decide they’re over it. So many people are graduating with MFAs and PhDs in creative writing, and there are far fewer academic jobs than candidates for them. These folks look to find a toehold in the literary world, and they find that publishing a journal is a positive use of their energies. They put out several issues, and they solicit their former classmates and writers they know to ensure that the work is strong. They often show a distinctive vision—something older journals frequently lack—and they use media savvy to build a following. They frequently publish online because it’s cheap or free, and that’s how a new litmag is born.
But then the editors get tired of publishing, and suddenly their journal—named, probably, with a weird-sounding, single-syllable noun—disappears. In other words, Poof! goes poof. Plop! sinks. Jig! pulls a hammie. Nut! cracks up. (My apologies to any real journals that debuted last week or early this morning with any of these names.)
I happen to think that publishing a literary magazine is a calling and a responsibility. Editors owe it to contributors to commit for the long haul, and to ensure that if something happens to them or to the journal, those archives will remain available as a permanent record.
Publishing an author’s work is a profound act of trust, and disappearing without a trace is a violation of that trust.
Sometimes I hear writers and editors complain that there are too many journals. We know that editors think there are too many submitters, crazy as that seems. (Submitters are writers, and I fervently believe that the world needs more writers.) My own take? The more, the merrier—but those who start a magazine must work to secure its future, or they should move over and leave literary work to the real editors.